No doubt, some leads close at a higher rate than do other leads. How can you spot the difference? Simple: The leads most likely to lead to a sale are the ones you manage until the car shopper buys or asks to be removed from your prospect list.Resist the temptation to gauge the quality of a lead based on your opinion of how likely it is to lead to a sale.* When car shoppers decide to request information from a third-party provider such as Cars.com, a manufacturer’s online configuration tool or your store’s website, that tells you more about their internet habits than readiness to buy a car. All of these automotive destinations cater to in-market shoppers, most of whom will likely purchase a vehicle in the near term. That said, beware that some lead providers are more focused on armchair surfers who gladly exchange their name and email address for a chance on a free iPod.

Manage Your Expectations
While you’ll occasionally land a lead from someone who’s ready to buy—right now!—you’re more likely to hear from customers who take several days or even several weeks to purchase a vehicle. As you know, consumers submit leads to get information about the cars they’re considering while keeping you at arm’s length. When they’re ready to more forward, they’ll let you know, especially if you’ve kept in touch and found ways to engage them during their decision-making process. In my experience, salespeople who define a quality lead as one that closes within 24 to 72 hours and disregard the rest lose more business than they win. (Not that their competitors are complaining.)

At Cars.com, we know from an Experian Automotive analysis that 79 percent of Cars.com shoppers who contact a seller will buy a vehicle within 90 days. Dealers who understand how consumers prefer to shop and work with individual lead senders throughout their buying cycle will reap the rewards. They’ll also build customer relationships that are more likely to yield repeat and referral business.

Work Your Process
That isn’t to say you should ignore low-hanging fruit—only that you should consistently follow your store’s sales processes. Respond to each inquiry as though you expect it to culminate in a sale. If you use email templates and phone scripts, be sure to personalize the message so that it answers the shopper’s questions and doesn’t seem canned. (Note: Unless you’re away from your desk or it’s after hours, turn off your email auto responder.)

The process typically breaks down in one of two ways. Either dealers fail to reply to the inquiry, or they do not provide what the customer considers a quality response. By contrast, dealers with the highest close rates tell us that they reply within 10 minutes with a brief email introducing themselves and their stores. After providing the starting price for the vehicle in question, they then present alternative new and used cars—including certified options if they’re available—that the buyer may want to consider.

To move toward closing the deal, consider concluding with probing questions about the vehicle the shopper is replacing and find out how he or she plans to use the next vehicle. The customer now has a reason to directly contact you to discuss next steps. You may also want to follow-up your email with a quick phone call to ensure the message wasn’t blocked by a spam filter.

Follow Your Lead
“Why should I buy from you?” This implicit question from car buyers frequently gets overlooked in the haste to provide the prospect with information about pricing and availability.

Be sure to answer this question, even if the prospect does not ask it directly. Tell the prospect about your store’s business philosophy and community reputation. Another way to demonstrate why you deserve the customer’s business is prompt follow-up. Few things encourage consumers to buy somewhere else than the sense that they—and their business—aren’t important to you.

Therefore, it is important that you adequately staff your store and implement appropriate processes to ensure you can respond to every lead. We’ve repeatedly seen how inconsistent follow-up not only reduces closing rates but also unfairly influences your perception of the lead’s quality. Only if you consistently connect with lead senders and communicate the value of doing business with you will you sell more cars.

You may also want to think of it this way: Every lead you choose not to pursue more than likely represents a car buyer who now has no choice but to contact another dealer.

Additional Resources
More information about online advertising and internet sales processes is available at Cars.com’s DealerCenter. New car leads were the focus of two recent DealerADvantage LIVE webinars: What’s Behind Your Online Leads? and Strategies to Close More Sales.

* For legal and ethical reasons, you should not allow the shopper’s gender, race, etc., to influence your perception of the lead’s value.